After the first debate a few weeks back, broadcast on STV, my hopes weren’t particularly high. Would Alistair Darling harp on and on about currency and nothing else? Would Alex Salmond simply roll over and leave his traditional “on the offensive” style at the door again? Thankfully, for the most part, no! Alex Salmond was on the war path as we’re used to seeing him and Darling did actually manage to talk about one or two issues besides currency.
As the referendum draws closer and closer everyone around Scotland is getting interested and involved in the debate, both campaigns have kicked it up a notch at the media is in full swing. This ‘referendum fever’ was clearly visible this evening as the debate was being shown live in the Queen Margaret Union, one of Glasgow University’s two student unions.
As I stepped into the usually sports orientated “Champions Bar” the crowds were already gathering, securing their seats and the place was buzzing with conversation. However, it wasn’t the latest football match, university studies or any kind of standard student chat – it was all politics. Listening into conversations as I wound my way to the bar was most interesting, there was quite a healthy turnout for the “Yes” side – a number of badges, stickers, even a baseball cap. The No voters (there were a couple) were somewhat quieter.
The SRC (Students’ Representative Council) had set up a table with voter registration forms, encouraging people to vote and get involved. The media were there too, well, one lassie with a notepad and a fairly expensive looking camera… I did feel a little outclassed.
As the debate kicked off one or two flags came out, a few Scottish ones, a Union flag and, for some reason I never did find out, an Australian flag – I’m sure the fellow had his own purposes.
Alex made his opening statement first and spoke quite passionately about about the NHS, Scotland’s public services, our old and vulnerable. He spoke of imposed Westminster policies “we could not stop the ‘Bedroom tax’.” He spoke of Trident and the desire to rid Scotland of Nuclear weapons and of his desire to see the money that is poured into Trident used for better purposes such as schools and our NHS.
His opening statement was met with applause and a couple of cheers in the bar.
Alistair Darling’s opening statement was the usual “No thanks does not mean no change.” He spoke of currency, of oil still being a “volatile” resource. He finished up by telling people not to trust Alex Salmond and that the UK was about sharing risk and reward. As he concluded his statement, the Union was overcome with thunderous silence. First blood to Salmond then, and it was to remain that way throughout.
Both leaders were quizzed on various topics throughout the evening and currency came up, somewhat inevitably. The first question from the audience in Kelvingrove Museum was; “Would we be financially secure in an independent Scotland?”
Alex Salmond went straight into it and, to the delight of the audiences, talked about the other options. He mentioned both an independent Scottish currency as well as an unofficial use of the pound. However he went straight into his idea that a formal currency union was within the best interests of both parties involved. Mr. Salmond was also keen to point out that as First Minister it was his job to fight for what he believed to be best for Scotland, “if we fight for second best, we’ll get second best.”
Having addressed the issues of a plan B, although still reaffirming his plan to push for a “mandate from the Scottish” people to share the Pound, Alex Salmond received a fairly positive reaction from the audiences.
The debate moved onto the subject of oil, to the great relief of the audiences, who’d had their fill of currency arguments. Darling, however, was not quite out of the woods on this one either. He continued to peddle the old argument that oil was too “volatile” and that we were risking our children’s futures on it, he then proceeded to tell us that all official estimates were far too optimistic and that we should take his word for it. However, much to the joy of the crowds (who by this point seem to have had enough of scaremongering), Alex pointed out that Alistair Darling’s own figures, when he’d been Chancellor of the Exchequer, were short by roughly five billion pounds.
In response to oil being “one big gamble on our children’s future”, Mr. Salmond pointed out that Scotland’s economy was only 15% dependent on oil, compared to Norway’s 20% dependency.
In what looked like an attempt to gain some ground back, Darling moved back to talking about currency, to an audible groan from the audience. He compared the idea of an informal currency union to that of Panama (the same Panama that was virtually untouched by the Banking Crisis), saying “I wouldn’t want to spend six minutes in Panama!” Neither the audience at Kelvingrove nor the one at the QMU were amused by that statement to say the least. He also described the pound as a “rotten option”, a great vote of confidence for the UK’s “strong economy” from the head of Better Together.
Despite the First Minister providing a plan B and plan C (mention of informal use of the pound and a separate Scottish currency) Alistair Darling, upon prompts from Mr. Salmond, could not provide a single plan B of his own.
Talk then shifted to things such as public services, most notably the NHS. The First Minister was keen to point out that the Scottish Government has “operational control” of the NHS which meant that it could not be forced to privatise it, however it does not have financial control. Essentially the Scottish budget is dictated using the Barnett Formula which uses public spending in England to determine how much money goes north. Continued slashing of public spending down south means less money is sent to Scotland. Mr. Salmond put the point across that public sector cuts in England are putting “tremendous pressure” on our NHS. Only with independence can Scotland maintain its healthcare system.
Mr. Darling’s response to this was garbled at best; he tripped over his words and repeated the same points over and over again that Scotland would not be forced to privatise the NHS due to the Scottish Government maintaining operational control; however he seemed to be missing entirely the idea that cuts to the Scottish budget would put strain on the NHS.
Salmond was quick to point out that the Scottish budget had been slashed by 8% under the Tory government and that continued Westminster imposed austerity was the biggest threat to the NHS. Mr. Darling decided to pull the currency card once more, saying “currency risks are the real threat to the NHS”. The audiences weren’t having it.
The same kind of thing happened with regards to welfare, with Salmond pointing out that the Scottish Government is already spending £50 million to offset the effects of the Bedroom Tax. Both audiences grew more and more uncomfortable as a Labour politician stood in front of them effectively defending Tory cuts.
In a very bold move, Mr. Darling told the First Minister that he resents the Yes campaign “using scare stories”. It was safe to say that the student audience was somewhat perplexed by this one.
For me, however, the highlight of the night was about to come up. One audience member stood up and asked the question; “If we’re Better Together, why aren’t we better together now?” Had the gentleman in question been in the QMU that evening, I think he’d have had one or two drinks bought for him.
Mr. Darling, rather taken aback, waffled on about the UK being the only way to protect jobs in things such as shipbuilding – jobs which have disappeared over the past few decades under Westminster rule. He began stuttering and tripping on his words, but never quite got around to answering the question. Mr. Salmond jumped in pointing out the number of jobs that Scotland has lost due to Westminster imposed cut backs, the number of foodbanks that have appeared in the last couple of years, our crippled welfare system, and that the only way to get a chance at saving what we hold dear is to vote for independence.
The final part of the debate was the cross examination. I’m not going to talk too much about this section, because it’s usually just a shouting match. However, one point did come up that was of interest; Alex Salmond asked Alistair Darling to name three new powers that Westminster would grant Holyrood in the even of a “No” vote. After a couple of minutes of Darling desperately weaselling his way around it, the audience had given up on him. The cross examination was most definitely a Salmond victory.
After a brief audience question and answer round, both parties made their closing addresses. Alex Salmond pointed out that very few countries get this opportunity, to vote, peacefully, for their independence. He urged the Scottish people to take this “great opportunity”. He spoke of risks and opportunities, but of one guarantee; that we always get the governments that we elect.
Now the debate was certainly a long affair, at about 90 minutes, most of which did feel a lot like Déjà vu, however it is on BBC iPlayer, and I would recommend you give it a watch. However, more interesting was the reaction of the audience. There were a few claps for what Darling had to say, but by the end, most of his support in that bar was very quiet, even in Kelvingrove, the audience was firmly with Salmond.
The last debate had been a poor show from the First Minister, especially for those who know of his usual flare. This time, he came out all guns blazing. But it was a positive message he was conveying and the people were with him for that. On the other side, Darling was being seen by the viewing public to be on the ropes, with nothing positive to give us, and for that he suffered.
Polls out just after the debate say that 71% of people believe the First Minister to have won the debate. It was certainly something like that in the Union. If I had one word to describe the atmosphere in the QM after the debate it would be “optimistic”.
People respond to optimism and many of them are beginning to tire of the scare stories and blackmailing of the No side. Last night’s debate was proof enough of that.